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What the F@#k?

New research shows changes in how the F-word is being used over time.

Key points

  • Swearing in public is part of our new normal, with previously taboo words now perceived as less offensive.
  • A new study shines some light on why the F-word in particular has been picking up steam.
  • In a process called "delexification," the F-word has shifted in how and why its used.

If it seems like you can’t see a movie, walk through a mall, or listen to a politician these days without hearing nasty words, you may just be right. Recent research suggests that some of our taboo words are becoming less taboo—and that swearing in public has become part of a new normal.

I swear!

While we don’t have any data on swearing in private conversations now vs earlier periods, profanity in public forums is definitely on the rise. For example, research on the appearance of the “seven words you can never say on TV” (as made famous by comedian George Carlin) shows that they have become 28 times more common in today’s literature than they were in the 1950s (Twenge et al 2017).

This suggests that something has changed over the decades that has made such language less offensive, at least to a significant portion of the population. And, even more than just an uptick in use, what is especially striking is how omnipresent even more offensive “bad” words have become, such as the rise of the F-word in everyday conversation.

What the f@#k?

It certainly seems that f@#k is everywhere these days. A survey of tweets by the folks behind the word search tool Wordtips found f@#k to be America’s most commonly tweeted curse word. And a more scholarly study of British speech (Love 2021) found that f@#k was the most commonly used British swear word, having surpassing “bloody” in recent decades.

In that study, the F-word was particularly favored by younger speakers. This is not surprising given that younger speakers—namely teenagers and those in their twenties—tend to be the biggest users of profanity overall. But that brings up the question of what has changed over the years to make the F-word increasingly acceptable where once it was deemed offensive?

Greater expressivity

A new study shines some light on why the F-word has been picking up steam. In a study just published in Journal of Pragmatics, British researchers compared the way f@#k was used in a collection of British conversations from 1990s vs a collection from 2010s. Their main goal was to track changes in how the F-word was being used over time.

Growing in popularity?

A main finding was that the use of the F-word in set idiomatic phrases (as in the fully worded “WTF!” or “For f@#k’s sake!”) increased three-fold over the 20-year period. At the same time, using it as a personal insult (“You f@#k”) or to refer to intercourse decreased in the last few decades.

Expanding functionality

According to researchers Robbie Love and Anna Stenstrom, f@#k seems to have undergone a process linguists refer to as delexification, or an expansion of a word’s function, ultimately resulting in a decay in or loss of its original meaning. In other words, a decrease in use of a word’s literal meaning, coupled with an increase in more figurative use, weakens its meaning over time.

For instance, when someone says “it’s f-king hot in here,” f-king no longer has any meaning associated with sexual intercourse but instead is used for emphasis and to mark degree (e.g., very hot). Likewise, “F@#k! I forgot my homework!” is no insult but instead just an exclamation marking a sudden shift in topic, usually signaling something unfortunate.

The more a word’s sense travels away from its original meaning, and particularly when it starts serving a more grammatical function like this, the more delexicalized it has become. Similarly, idiomatic expressions carry little sense of the original meaning of the word, in the same way that most of us use a phrase like “butter him up” without even remotely thinking about dairy products.

Socially expressive

Delexicalization often results in an increase in use of a word over time because it has expanded its use to a greater range of contexts, often far afield from its original meaning. This is much the same process that has resulted in “literally” taking on the meaning of “extremely” rather than its original sense of “exactly” or “actually.”

Of course, the reason the F-word has expanded into such non-literal usage is precisely because of its profane past. Though swear words can be used negatively (when directed at a target), research (Adams 2016, Wajnryb 2004) suggests that swearing can also be cathartic, providing an emotional outlet, and social, strengthening peer relationships and establishing intimacy.

By picking a word that has some shock value and takes a bit of a verbal risk owing to its associated taboo use, it carries more impact. But, unlike when used to refer to sex or as an insult, the delexified “f@#k” is instead about expressing emotions like frustration or making social connections with a peer group.

Less stigma = wider use

This delexicalization process helps explain why recent studies suggest that people nowadays are less offended by the use of f@#k and swear words more generally.

For instance, a 2010 study by the Parent TV Council found almost a 70% increase in (bleeped out) profanity on prime-time TV in just a five year period between 2005 and 2010, noting a sharp rise in the use of more profane words like the F-word. Alongside this increase, public views of the use of obscenity have softened, with more people finding its use less offensive or even acceptable (Ipsos MORI, 2021).

This goes hand in hand with the increase in use of swear words at work and by public figures who are also drawing on the emotive and solidarity-building aspects of using profanity. As swear words get put to work in less traditional/literal ways, their negative connotations are less likely to be the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing them.

Of course, not everyone reads their use the same way, as their power to strengthen in-group social bonds by appealing to shared emotion and intimacy can backfire with those who don’t see themselves as part of that tribe.

So, regardless of how comfortable people might seem to be these days with public profanity, politicians and coworkers might still want to use a little discretion on where and when to let the F-bombs fly.


Adams M. (2016) In Praise of Profanity. Oxford University Press.

Love, Robbie. (2021). "Swearing in informal spoken English: 1990s–2010s" Text & Talk, vol. 41, no. 5-6. 739-762.

Love, R., & Stenström, A-B. (2023). Corpus-pragmatic perspectives on the contemporary weakening of fuck: The case of teenage British English conversation. Journal of Pragmatics, 216, 167-181.

Ipsos MORI. (2021). Public attitudes towards offensive language on TV and radio: summary report. UK Office of Communications (Ofcom).…. Accessed 8.31.23.

Twenge, J. M., VanLandingham, H., & Keith Campbell, W. (2017). The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television: Increases in the Use of Swear Words in American Books, 1950-2008. SAGE Open, 7(3).

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